Editor’s Note: Storks opens in wide theatrical release today, September 23, 2016.
Depending on who you ask, we’re either in the Second Golden Age of Animation or stuck in a dangerously over-saturated market that will crash and burn in the near future (if not sooner). Alternatively, maybe both perspectives are more right than their individual proponents would like to admit. Wherever you stand – or sit, again depending on your perspective – the latest addition to the discussion, Storks, an all-ages, family-oriented animated adventure, won’t be added to this year (or any year’s) greatest list, but it’s also far from the genre’s worst. Written and co-directed by Nicholas Stoller (Neighbors 1-2, The Five-Year Engagement, Get Him to the Greek, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) with Doug Sweetland, it falls short on the narrative end, but it’s also filled with brilliant, imaginative sight gags, delightfully winning characters, and knowing, wry verbal humor typical of the better entries in the ever-expanding sub-genre.
Storks’ animation suffers from a general sameness and blandness that typifies non-Disney, non-Pixar filmmaking.
When we meet protagonist number one, Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg), an ambitious, driven stork, he’s poised to make the big move to the big office in the sky: Boss-stork to the stork-run package delivery company, Cornerstore.com. His immediate superior, Hunter (Kelsey Grammer), promises him the promotion on one condition: Fire – or in Hunter’s corporate speak, “liberate” – Tulip (Katie Crown), the company’s one and only human. Raised by the storks as a charity case after one of their own loses it (by “it,” we mean his mind), Tulip spends her time in inventor mode, regardless of whether Hunter or her adopted stork family, including Junior, care. A typically plucky, spunky heroine – and a fitting role model for girls into science – Tulip’s relative inexperience with (and in) the real world makes her an easy mark for Junior’s falsehood (he promises her a promotion of her own, to the long abandoned letter department).
Stoller and Sweetland parallel Junior and Tulip’s intertwined storyline with Nate (Anton Starkman), a young, lonely boy long neglected by his real estate broker parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gardner (Ty Burrell, Jennifer Aniston). They run their business out of their home 24-7-365, promising their clients dream homes, but forgetting to provide Nate with the emotional support and quality parent time their son needs. Nate hits on the perfect solution, a baby brother, a decision that leads to the letter that Tulip receives and inadvertently slips into the magical baby-making machine. Stoller and Sweetland sidestep the whole “Where do babies come from if they no longer come from storks?” question by ignoring it altogether; parents exiting their local multiplex might not be so lucky. Without storks and their baby-making machine, maybe the world’s population decreases day by day (assuming normal mortality rates) or simply remains stable (no one dies in a world without disease, violence, or aging). It’s tangential, of course, but it does point to some wobbly world building by Storks’ architects, Stoller, Sweetland, and their animation team.
Stoller and Sweetland sidestep the whole “Where do babies come from if they no longer come from storks?” question by ignoring it altogether; parents exiting their local multiplex might not be so lucky.
Questions of procreation aside, Storks takes satirical aim – albeit broad, caricature-level satire – at big business through Cornerstore.com’s soulless emphasis on profits over people (and storks) and the corporate drones – or in this case, a corporate stork – who wholeheartedly, uncritically buy into the cult of corporate capitalism over other, more primary (secular humanist) values: community, compassion, and empathy. It helps, of course, that Stoller and Sweetland’s skillset involves the expert manipulation of audience reactions and emotions through carefully choreographed scenes and scene construction, beginning with Junior and Tulip’s evolving relationship, through the adorably big-eyed infant who eventually warms Junior’s cold, dispassionate heart, and a wolf pack led by an alpha (Keegan-Michael Key) and a beta (Jordan Peele) eager to adopt the baby as one of their own. Two words: Wolf bridge. Two more words: Wolf boat. Junior and Tulip’s chief antagonist, Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman), proves to be the weakest link, not to mention the most annoying character, but thankfully he’s offscreen for long stretches of time.
Storks’ animation, however, does suffer from a general sameness and blandness that typifies non-Disney, non-Pixar filmmaking. The animators generally play it safe character wise, with one exception: Tulip. With her curly, red hair, lanky, ungainly frame, and oversized head (and feet), Tulip purposely stands out from the other characters. Her hair’s practically a character of its own. In one early scene, a bored Tulip pretends she’s several, different characters, each one distinguished by her hair style. It gives the animators a chance to do flex their virtual muscles. Every time the wolf pack makes an appearance, a clever visual gag is close behind. Likewise when Storks foregrounds Tulip’s inventions (e.g., jetpacks for non-flying fowl, a makeshift plane). Unfortunately, Tulip’s inventions take an early back seat to the Transporter-inspired plot (i.e., delivering the first baby in years to her respective parents), but that’s a minor point relative to Storks pro-empowerment, pro-family (biological and non-biological), and pro-fun message.
The animation in Storks suffers from a general sameness and blandness that typifies non-Disney, non-Pixar filmmaking, but the story shines by embracing a pro-empowerment and pro-fun message.